New York

Rita Ackermann

Andrea Rosen Gallery

Long before slackers and Gen X-ers embraced the emblems of kitsch and abjection, they were wielded by artists as proof of rebellion against the constraints of art-historical tradition. Think of Francis Picabia’s reveling in the déclassé charm of tourist art and girlie magazines; or Sigmar Polke’s channeling, in the ’60s, of “higher beings” who produced canvases that combined mindless doodling with greeting-card art; or, more recently, Mike Kelley’s and Paul McCarthy’s immersion in the scatological.

It’s such a familiar story that it’s hard to believe many still fall for the gag, taking this kind of work as an authentic symptom of the decline of Western Civilization. Equally mystifying is the impulse that guides just as many others to slap the label “institutional critique” on the myriad forms of faux-adolescent latter-day Conceptualism. But there are any number of ways to explain the “antiesthetic” vogue. Currently, the esthetics of impoverishment (which includes anything from “too ugly to look at” to “too stupid to think about” ) gives visual form to the phrase “the scaled-down ’90s” and to the sense that art may finally have exhausted its potential forms. Equally, with all the Robert Hugheses and Hilton Kramers ranting at full volume, the mounting tidal wave of bad attitudes, dyslexic texts, clumsily crafted objects, and juvenile drawings, many of which rock with high-octane hormonal levels, can be read as the collective revenge of the marginalized—both in a sociopolitcal and in a psychic sense.

Rita Ackermann’s paintings of doe-eyed nymphs, whose innocence and charm lent a sinister cast to adult games of seduction, certainly falls into the last category. Rendered in an unschooled style, these cartoon pictures of malevolent fauns seemed at once illicit and loaded with irony. In her suite of eight new paintings (all works 1995), however, Ackermann affects something of an about-face. The Lolitas are gone and in their stead an average-looking boy captured in snapshot poses is framed against a ground that is part barren mountainscape, part empty ski resort. Teen-style illustration has given way to an equally questionable esthetic borrowed (we presume) from the tradition of figurative painting that still flourishes in art departments and schools throughout the country. Accordingly, Ackermann’s canvases are flat, lacking any sense of urgency, expressive value, or verisimilitude.

While some may find her scenery reminiscent of the kind that inspired much Romantic poetry, Ackermann’s boy next door is hardly a Young Werther longing for release in the spectacular solitude of nature. So insistent is the imprimatur of the anonymous and the amateur in this work that it overrides subjective engagement with both the cute kid and the vacation spot, drawing attention to the question of the work’s own genesis. Establishing an affinity among antithetical traditions, Ackermann’s canvases—equal parts Romanticism, Photorealism, bland academicism, and kitsch—could be said to embrace the “Heinz 57” formula for success. The result is work that seems at once decidedly sincere and tongue-in-cheek.

Turning this low-wattage series up a notch, Ackermann’s titles build to a slapstick punch line. Run together they read: “I can move mountains, I can predict monsoons, and I can reach the sky, and I can walk on fire, I can tame the savage, and jump over cliffs, and I can break glass with my voice, but I know that I’ll never be a good skier.” Are we supposed to conclude merely that the boy’s boasts of extraordinary power are belied by his inability to master a comparatively simple skill, or, rather, that painting is speaking of its own limitations? Clearly, Ackermann would have us opt for the latter.

Self-reflexive critique, which so often supports bad painting, fusses over definitions of the medium while actively capitalizing on its own sense of estrangement. Staging her exercises in banality on a grand scale (one painting measures more than 5-by-7 feet), Ackermann brings epic weight to bear on what is really no more than a comedy of manners. There’s nothing much to condemn; but then there’s nothing much to get excited about either. To say the least, Ackermann’s position is well rehearsed, and these new paintings do nothing more than reiterate it—emphatically and ad nauseam.

Jan Avgikos